The night when tragedy struck

It was described as the "most terrible calamity Newmarket had known" – a fierce blaze which cost the lives of three young women and left countless others with serious injuries.

As the 100th anniversary of the Newmarket Town Hall fire approaches, the Journal looks back to September 7, 1907, and a disaster that shook the town.

Next month at Jane of Newmarket, the former site of the town hall, a special exhibition about the fire is being mounted by the Newmarket Local History Society.

The exhibition will then be displayed at the library, while on September 11 at 2pm, society chairman Eric Dunning will give a talk about the fire.

See also - So distraught, Ephraim left Newmarket, never to return

They came to see the flickering images that were exciting crowds all over East Anglia.

Hundreds crowded in to Newmarket's Town Hall on the High Street for an evening film show presented by the Gaumont Company as part of a tour of the region, which featured the Bury St Edmunds pageant of 1907.

Two shows had been planned for Newmarket, but the matinee had to be cancelled because the organisers had not been able to block out enough of the bright September sunshine for the show to go ahead.

Instead of demanding their money back, many of the afternoon ticket holders turned up for the evening performance and the numbers admitted swelled from the usual 400 seated to, according to some estimates, between 700 and 800 as townsfolk squeezed into every available space

The film show was presented using a contraption called a bioscope – known then as limelight apparatus. Light was generated from a burning ball of lime on to which flowed a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen from two large cylinders. The lime-light was then projected through the highly inflammable celluloid film as the operator fed it through the spools.

Among the excited throng at the town hall was a young Newmarket couple, Ephraim Starling and his 23-year-old wife Sarah, 30-year-old domestic servant Clara Ashby, and 14-year-old Maggie Draffin, who had gone to see the show with her elder sister.

All went well until the interval at around 9pm when disaster struck.

The hall was in complete darkness and before the hallkeeper had the chance to turn up the gas lights, people started to move towards the door.

The projector stood precariously on two boxes with no protective screen and it was knocked over, igniting the spool of film.

As the cry "fire, fire" penetrated the darkness, panic ensued as people scrambled to get out, trampling those who had fallen in the gloom.

For some, the tragedy was only just starting to unfold. Sarah Starling had been standing right next to the machine when it was knocked over.

Her grieving husband, Ephraim, later told the inquest in to her death: "A piece of white stuff fell to the floor – white like a piece of chalk and all in flames. As soon as I saw the machinery fall, I grabbed hold of my wife to get her out but before I could get her to the door she was pushed on the fire."

As Ephraim struggled to get to Sarah, he found to his horror that one side of the double doors was bolted.

Every piece of Sarah's clothing had been burned from her body and she was horribly injured, but, incredibly, helped by her husband, managed to walk from the town hall to the nearby home of Dr Fyson, before being taken to the Rous Memorial Hospital. She died early the next morning with her husband at her side.

The bolted door was eventually broken down by local Pc Edward Wright, helped by a local plasterer Mr W Sims and Albert Court, Gaumont's manager, who bravely managed to pick up the blazing spool of film and carry it out on to the street.

He was, however, powerless to deal with the leaking gas cylinders which were still alight.

It was Henry Greenwood, the machine operator, who finally managed to turn them off, sustaining severe burns to his hands in the process.

Frank Simpson, captain of the town's fire brigade, who just happened to be at the film show, was another of the night's heroes. He knew in the hall where the inside hose reel was located and was able to start fighting the fire. There is no doubt his prompt actions saved hundreds of lives.

But Clara Ashby and Maggie Draffin were not so fortunate.

Thirty-year-old Clara, who lived at a house in St Mary's Square, where she worked as a domestic servant for the manager of the Jockey Club Rooms, managed to struggle home despite suffering horrific burns to her face and body. Her employer managed to get her to hospital where she died four days later.

Martha 'Maggie' Draffin was just 14 and the daughter of former local trainer Andrew Draffin, who lived in Old Station Road. She had gone to the show with her elder sister who survived the tragedy.

As the child was carried to the nearby Horse Shoes hotel, a Journal report noted that her "charred clothes burst into flames again". Taken to hospital she was not expected to survive the night, but she clung to life for another five days before she died. Like Sarah Starling, she was buried in Newmarket Cemetery.

It took 15 minutes to completely clear the hall, while outside the High Street was a chaotic scene as news of the fire spread and anxious relatives arrived to search for loved ones. Those who escaped wandered around bruised and battered with their clothing either torn or burned, while inside the building the floor was littered with clothing and even human hair.

Around 300 people were injured, many of them seriously. They included the 16-year-old apprentice jockey Henri Jellis who recovered from his ordeal and four years later rode the winner of the Cambridgeshire ahead of three Classic winners in the 1920s and 1930s. He later became a successful Newmarket trainer.

The coroner at the inquest into the deaths described the fire as "a calamity, the most terrible he had known in Newmarket".

During the hearing, Mr Salmon, solicitor for the Gaumont, said there had been no negligence on the company's part and that the incident had been an accident which no-one could have foreseen.

But, during the hearing he made the staggering admission that a portable protective enclosure for the projector had not been used as it was only put up if the local council demanded it.

The inquest jury took just 40 minutes to return its verdict – that the deaths of Sarah Starling, Maggie Draffin and Clara Ashby were accidental, but ruled that sufficient precautions had not be taken to protect the public.

Today, the company would no doubt have been sued by the relatives of the women who lost their lives 100 years ago, but instead got away with paying for the funerals and "delicacies for the injured ordered by their doctors".

The tragedy, however, did result in changes in the law. In 1909, the Cinematographic Act laid down regulations for emergency lighting, fire appliances and the enclosure of the projector in a fire-resistant compartment.